Planet of the Apes (1968): Franklin (Patton) Schaffner’s Impactful Oscar-Winning Sci-Fi, Starring Charlton Heston

Though intended as a project for Blake Edwards, Planet of the Apes, the film version of Pierre Boule’s sci-fi novel was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, who two years later would go on to win the Best Director Oscar for Patton.

A movie event before the term existed, “Planet of he Apes” was rapturously received by viewers, due to its intriguing narrative, innovative setting, and high quality level of visual and sound effects.

It was a vastly entertaining and intelligent film, well acted by Charlton Heston, Kim  Hunter, Roddy McDowall, James Whitmore, and the rest of the cast.

The Fox-made film was released in 1968, the same year that Stanley Kubrick’s seminal sci-fi, “2001: A Space Odyssey” came out.

The witty, intelligent, occasionally satirical script is by Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, a blacklisted author who had previously adapted to the big-screen the 1957 Oscar-winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” directed by David Lean and also based on a Pierre Boule novel.

Charlton Heston plays George Taylor, the commander of a lengthy outer-space mission that’s interrupted when the spaceship crash-lands on a remote, unknown planet, seemingly devoid of intelligent life. He and two other survivors make their way through an arid wasteland into a lush forest where they observe what appears to be a tribe of Stone Age humans. A bizarre horn cries, and the sounds of gunfire are heard, sending the savages running into the woods.

The confused astronauts are shocked to see that the armed horsemen are actually apes wearing leather uniforms.  It turns out that this planet is ruled by a race of talking, thinking, reasoning apes.

With minimum dialogue and strong reliance on visuals and sounds, the first reel of the film is terrific, establishing an ominous atmosphere of fear of the unknown.

In this picture, the apes wear the clothes and do the talking, while the humans revert to their wild and savage state. ”Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” scream Heston’s Taylor, only to regret it later on.   In this peculiar, topsy-turvy society, the humans are grunting, inarticulate primates, penned-up like animals.

When ape leader Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) discovers that the captive Taylor can speak, he insists that the astronaut be killed. But sympathetic ape scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowell) and Dr. Zira (Kim Hunter) risk their lives to protect Taylor.

Jointly, they go on to discover the history of their planet, which Dr. Zaius and his minions have guarded secretly and jealously.  Occasionally, the movie gets too cute and precious.  Thus, Cornelius tells Taylor, after he saves his beard: “Somehow it makes you look less intelligent.”  And in the farewell scene, Kim Hunter accepts grudgingly Heston’s kiss, while telling him: “All right, but you’re so damned ugly.”

The very last scene, which is set on the beach in front of the ruins of the State of Liberty, is particularly powerful, reflecting the film’s ideological message, when Taylor curses mankind: “You finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”Damn you! Damn you! Goddamn you all to hell!”

Essaying yet another larger-than-life heroic role,  Charlton Heston renders a compellingly hot-tempered, physical performance, which calls for nearly complete exposure of his body.

Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter are highly effective as a sympathetic ape scientist and doctor, respectively.

At the time, John Chambers’s latex makeup was praised for allowing the actors full range of expressive facial gestures.  Chambers won a special Oscar for his simian makeup, which while impressive was excruciatingly uncomfortable for the cast. In fact, Edward G. Robinson had to bow out because of the makeup demands; he was replaced by Maurice Evans.

In 1968, there was not standard Oscar category for Makeup; it was established in 1981.  John Cambers became the second artist in the Academy’s history to win a special award, following William Tuttle, who won for the movie “Seven faces of Dr. Lao.”

Impact of the 1968 Movie

This impressive sci-fi film, which has held up quite well, spawned four sequels, an animated cartoon series, a live-action TV series, bubble-gum cards, Halloween masks, and a rash of plastic models.

None of the sequels, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” lived up to the 1968 original movie.

Over the years, the “Planet of the Apes” series inevitably escalated self-parody, with some of the text entering into movie lore.

In 2001, Tim Burton directed a remake of “Planet of the Apes,” starring Mark Wahlberg, which was commercially successful but artistically disappointing.  (See our review).

Oscar Nominations: 2

Original Score: Jerry Goldsmith

Costume design: Morton Hack

Oscar Awards: 1

Honorary Oscar for John Chambers for his outstanding makeup achievement


Oscar Context:

The winner of the Original Score Oscar was John Barry for the historical drama, “The Lion in Winter.”

Danilo Donati received the Costume Design Oscar for “Romeo and Juliet.”